Herding Cats During a Pandemic

The Alliance for the Homeless’ Sleep Center has been soaring, so we have had every reason to be proud of our ability to safely shelter over 40 persons per night. When our Exit Homeless program took off because offices and staff were on site, over 30 people who had been there for up to 1100 days were helped to secure permanent housing. We are way ahead of most communities in responding to the rise in homelessness in our area and even have sinks and flush toilets at the new site!

Then things turned upside down. Suddenly, we were wondering how to address pandemic-related health issues in the midst of sheltering some of the most vulnerable folks in town. Could we even stay open?

We met with clients to discuss the seriousness of this health crisis and implement new requirements for hygiene and social distancing. It went over about as well as a skunk in a cosmetics store. We were asking for radical changes in operations, but change has seldom been positive for most of our clients. Luxuries like clean clothes and hand-washing sinks are the first things to disappear when someone hits the street. Social capital from close contact with friends is about the only resource many of them have. Those with addictions, mental health issues, histories of trauma, or disabilities are especially challenged.

Nonetheless, we forge ahead. We squirted hands with sanitizer and had folks go to a sink and wash hands for 20 seconds. We increased cleaning and disinfecting of common areas, helped greatly by a crew of women volunteers for Christian Aid Center every weekday morning. We created social distance in the high-risk common room by clearing out chairs and tables. Showering was postponed until we could change procedures. We asked donors to serve food in brown bags or similar methods. With hand sanitizer sold out, wine-maker Craig found an alcohol-based recipe online, bought supplies, and created “Volwiler’s brew.” By the next evening, after complaining a bit, people settled down and went on with their lives. ...at least until it rains.

Leaders have been working almost constantly with city and health officials in responding to the coronavirus threat. Discussion includes the possibility of being open 24/7, adding some paid staff, creating isolation space when someone is ill, and securing food and supplies required for expanded services. All that and more ASAP.

Stay tuned. Everything is fluid right now.

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